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New Delhi: The ruling Congress party continues to be defiant despite a growing chorus of corruption charges and controversies against it.

Poll fallout: Sonia Gandhi in her address to Congress legislators on Wednesday strongly defended the UPA-led government.(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

In her first address to the members of Parliament (MPs) after the party faced embarrassing poll defeats in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa recently, Gandhi asked them to fight as a “disciplined" team as they prepare for elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh later this year.

On the party’s performance in Punjab and Goa, Gandhi admitted the results were disappointing. But as for Uttar Pradesh, where her son and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi led the poll campaign, she took comfort in the increased vote share for the Congress.

“In Uttar Pradesh, even though we did not perform as well as we had hoped to, we increased our vote share quite considerably and were seen as a serious player for the first time in 22 years," she said, adding: “Of course, there is much work to be done there as in other states."

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Sonia Gandhi addressed her party’s MPs on Wednesday. Mint’s Anuja says the Congress president called on them to fight as a “disciplined" team ahead of state elections later this year

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In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, the Congress won only 27 of the 403 assembly seats despite the high-profile campaign led by Rahul Gandhi, improving its vote share to 12% from 8% in previous state election in 2007. That, however, was worse than the 18.25% share the party won in the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

Even in the traditional Gandhi family bastions of Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Lok Sabha constituencies of Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, respectively, the party’s performance was poor.

A three-member committee headed by defence minister A.K. Antony blamed indiscipline—euphemism for infighting among senior members—as a key reason for the Congress’ poor performance. “We must shed all manner of factional behaviour and fight as one disciplined team at all levels," Gandhi said in her speech.

Gandhi, who usually restricts herself to laying down directions and guidelines to her party MPs in her addresses, took strong exception to the increasing criticism against the Congress-led United Progress Alliance government. “We must not allow this to deflect us," she said. “We must speak forcibly with confidence on what we have achieved and there is much we have to show despite difficult economic times," she said.

N. Bhaskara Rao, a political analyst who has been tracking the Congress for over four decades, said Gandhi “should have used this opportunity in exhorting MPs, who are in a dilemma and desperately looking for guidance. There is nothing in the speech which could be considered as a guidance."

The Congress and the UPA government are under fire for their failure to contain corruption and rising prices, as well as for the scams and controversies that have surfaced involving its members and paralysed policy-making.

Gandhi backed the home ministry’s stance on the formation of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), but in a veiled manner.

The Union government is committed to strengthening federalism, Gandhi said, “but there are centre-state issues of major national importance—such as fighting terrorism or dealing with Left-wing extremism—where the centre cannot shirk responsibility."

Some state chief ministers, including West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress is a partner in the UPA government, are resisting the NCTC, saying it violates the federal structure of the Constitution.

Political observers said the Congress president’s support for the NCTC may irk some regional parties and the opposition. With the presidential election scheduled for June or July, the ruling party is expected to evolve a consensus on the successor to President Pratibha Patil.

Gandhi also urged the UPA government to focus on making public expenditure more effective instead of being “just content with increases in outlay".

Stressing the need for the completion of the Aadhaar project that aims to provide a unique identity number to every resident of India, she said the programme has the “potential to offer a much better way to deliver pensions, scholarships, subsidies and MGNREGA wages directly to beneficiaries, and eliminate inefficiencies, waste and corruption".

MGNREGA is short for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the government’s flagship jobs creation scheme.

liz.mathew@livemint.com

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